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Old conflicts shadow new gold rush on the Klamath River

With gold continuing to sell at historically high prices, the hunt for the shiny mineral is alive and well. Mostly.

In 2009, California outlawed a technique known as suction dredge mining, which makes finding gold a bit easier than shaking a pan. Officials wanted to study potential damage to the Klamath River, an area where there was lots of dredging. KALW’S Hadley Robinson has the story about a struggle for power along the river.

HADLEY ROBINSON: On the swift-flowing Klamath River, at the base of steep forested mountains, sits Happy Camp, California – a town of just over 1,000 people. Yes, it’s called Happy Camp. It’s a quirky place – part of the Jefferson County that once tried to secede from California. Nearly a quarter of residents are members of the Karuk tribe. The tribe is also one of the top employers in town. There are just a few other businesses and Happy Camp prides itself on having more Bigfoot sightings than anywhere else. It’s also a place where you can find something else: gold.

MYRNA KARNS: When you find a piece of gold, you're the first person in history to see that. God put it there how many thousands of years ago and you're the first person to see it…

Myrna Karns spends her weekdays working at the local gold mining equipment store. It’s run by a club called the New 49ers – a reference to the old 49ers who first found California gold. Over the years, the club has acquired hundreds of federal mining claims along 60 miles of the Klamath River. There are 1,200 members, but anyone can pay a fee to try to find their very own sparkles of gold in the water.

KARNS: It's just the thrill. It's like back in the old days, in the old West days, you know.

People interested in gold have been here since Happy Camp was the old West. They started coming in 1851, when gold was first discovered in the area. Then they stayed around – Happy Camp was a logging town for most of the 20th century. The last mill closed in 1994. Since then, the town's businesses have survived the summer months in thanks to the tourists who come seeking increasingly valuable gold. Myrna Karns says it’s not really a way to make a living.

KARNS: It's more of a hobby. To make a living, you'd probably have to work 10 to 12 hours. And I mean hard hours, not going out in the water for an hour and taking a four hour break.

Still, in a depressed economy, even a little money helps.

KARNS: I have seen a man just working up on shore panning and he'd come in with about $40 worth of gold for the day so he was able to go buy some groceries.

Starting in the early 2000s, gold prices soared and more and more people made their way to Happy Camp. The founder of the New 49ers called it a new gold rush. People joined the club, set up RVs, campers, and port-a-potties along the river, and spent weeks searching for gold. Most of the miners used a machine known as a suction dredge. It’s about the size of a small raft, with a loud motor that sits on two pontoons. Miners swim alongside wearing scuba gear, diving to the bottom to dig holes for a large hose. The hose acts as a vacuum, and sucks up sediment into a box on top of the dredge. Then the miners sift through it, looking for gold.

LEAF HILLMAN: There was basically a wholesale invasion of the Salmon River. And all of a sudden instantly it was over run by suction dredge miners.

Leaf Hillman is a Karuk and one of the leading opponents of suction dredging.

HILLMAN: It looked very ugly and, quickly, there were conflicts with our tribal membership, for sure.

Swimming holes that people were used to splashing in were suddenly filled with dredges. Formerly pristine shores were covered with trash. Hillman says the tension led to physical fights. But a bigger issue was fish. Hillman says that even though the river’s fish populations are no longer big enough to feed people consistently, fish still play an important spiritual role in Karuk culture.

HILLMAN: We are a fishing people. We live along the river and the river has sustained us forever.

In 2005, the tribe sued California Fish and Game for allowing suction dredge mining in areas where there were endangered fish populations. A court ordered the agency to do a comprehensive review and update regulations. In 2009, the state temporarily banned suction dredges. Last summer the ban was extended until 2016, pending more environmental review.

HILLMAN: When you talk about, well maybe it's just a small impact… But when you have an invasion of a place like the Salmon River that houses remnant populations that don't exist anywhere else on the Pacific Coast, that's a pretty important place. And the last thing we ought to be doing is allowing mechanized, motorized intensive mining activities in that habitat.

Back when the first gold miners came to Happy Camp in 1851, they blew out mountainsides for hydraulic mining and used literally tons of mercury to process the gold.

Hillman lives and works at the tribal office 45 miles down the river from Happy Camp in a small town called Orleans. We stop along the winding road that looks down a steep drop to the roaring river. A black bear pounces around the shrubs across the river.

HILLMAN: Yeah, it's beautiful country. People stop and look at places like this and what those people don't see is the historic legacy of gold mining here on the Klamath.

There are a lot of environmental arguments against suction dredge mining. Gas pours out of the motors and into the water and the vacuum hoses likely suck up crucial nutrients and insects, in addition to dirt and gold. But since it's been banned for the last three summers, it's hard to see any remnants or damage. It’s actually easier to see the impacts from the original gold rush – areas where hydraulic mining took out mountainsides and tailings piles were thrown on riversides.

Jim Foley is a member of the New 49ers. He says suction dredge miners don't do the river any harm.

FOLEY: We destroy nothing. We move gravel around. We take it from here and we put it right over here – and I'm talking about a distance of maybe four feet. And as we move up the stream, we drop the gravel back in.

The arguments are endless, but this battle seems to be about more than the environmental impacts.

FOLEY: I have seen that the agenda of those that are against mining is not about mining. It's not even about fish. The real agenda behind the scenes is about control of natural resources.

These tensions run deep. Foley goes on to say it's unfair that the tribe gets fishing privileges. He accuses them of wanting white people off the river. Hillman won’t say that, but he makes it clear that he’s bitter toward miners.

HILLMAN: The New 49ers, are a lot like the old 49ers. The first gold rush that occurred here we lost. Three-quarters of our population was murdered. They were displaced from their homes, from their lands.

Hillman is quick to point out that those conflicts weren't that long ago. They were his direct relatives.

HILLMAN: I can take you to places and point out places that were armed conflicts – where people are buried. I know their names. I know what happened in that place. So it feels very close to us and the trauma on the culture and the people, our way of life, our religion, everything else. We still struggle with those effects today. They haven't went away in 150 years.

So, for now, the suction dredgers are gone. Anyone who wants to look for gold has to do it the old-fashioned way. People living in Happy Camp notice the difference, but they aren't all happy about it. The miners may have brought RVs, temporary camps and trash, but they also bought gas and groceries, and a solid bacon and egg meal before hitting the river.

Debbie Virtue is a waitress at Frontier Café. She wishes she was serving up more of those breakfasts.

DEBBIE VIRTUE: I've been here 24 years and the last three summers have been the slowest – this one being the slowest of those three. There's just a lower amount of people that have been coming during the season to dredge.

When I talked with her around 9am, my friend and I were the only two people in the restaurant. When I went back for dinner at 6:45pm, it was already closed.

In this battle, there’s no tie. There’s the view of Jim Foley:

FOLEY: The only way that I see it getting resolved is through a lawsuit. Unfortunately, this is the way that all of these things get resolved in the end. Nobody can seem to come to a middle ground on anything outside of a lawsuit.

And the view of Leaf Hillman:

HILLMAN: I think you have to fight fire with fire. I don't think that trying to talk nice or to negotiate something, I don't think that that gets you anywhere. Not when you're dealing with people who don't acknowledge your right to exist.

Even after 160 years, the power struggle along the river goes on.

For Crosscurrents, I'm Hadley Robinson.

Hadley Robinson is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.